Interview: Leonard Nimoy On The Fringe Set
William Bell. It’s a name that has haunted the world of Fringe since the pilot episode. Viewers waited patiently throughout the entire first season to finally meet Walter Bishop’s former colleague, the enigmatic founder of Massive Dynamic. Now, one year after that fateful meeting between Bell and Olivia Dunham inside the alternate reality’s undamaged World Trade Center, Bell is reemerging for yet another season finale — an appearance that takes the shadowy scientist, and the audience, “Over There.”
Earlier this year, Spinoff Online traveled to the Vancouver set of Fringe and participated in a group interview with acclaimed actor and science-fiction icon Leonard Nimoy, the man charged with playing William Bell. Nimoy spoke about his character’s brief appearances since the Season One finale, what fans can expect from his considerably lengthier appearance in the upcoming two-part Season Two finale, and much more.
Spinoff Online: These past two seasons have pointed toward either a meeting with or confrontation with William Bell …
Leonard Nimoy: That’s very perceptive. [Laughs]
I’m not sure whether or not this season resolves the whole story involving William Bell or what he means to the main characters.
There will be a major confrontation — I’ll call it a confrontation — between the two characters [Bell and Walter Bishop]. We saw just a little snippet the last time I was here. I was doing brain surgery on him [in the episode "Grey Matters"]. But now we’ll see them spend some time together in a dramatic setting and a dramatic situation where we will get some more information about the overview of their relationship: the past, how they felt about each other then, what they were doing, what they were trying to do, how it’s effected both universes and, particularly, their feelings about each other now. They have some stuff to work out with each other. In fact, there’s a moment I’ll tell you about where they start getting into it and Olivia says, “Hey, work it out some other time!” [Laughs] They have some other stuff to deal with, so it’s a terrific moment. But we will see that. We’ll see it happen.
Will we see key scenes between William Bell and some of the other characters besides Walter?
We will see other characters with William Bell in this [episode]. But essentially, the character stuff will be between William and Walter. The other stuff will have to do with the plot and action.
The show has been picked up for a third season. Does that mean your character might return for a third season?
I have no idea about any future plans, but I answer the phone. Particularly when J.J. Abrams calls me. I say, “Okay, I have to answer the phone.” [Laughs]
You alluded to some personal fighting between William and Walter. Would that have anything to do with relationships with possibly the same woman?
Possibly with women? Oh, what an interesting question. Where did you get that? Is there some hint of that some place?
Personally, my own theory is that Nina might be a connecting link between them …
Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s interesting … it is. It’s interesting.
Is there anything about William Bell that you can identify with? What aspects of him are you most fond of?
I don’t think I’m an awful lot like William Bell. [Laughs] William Bell is kind of what we refer to in our culture as a master of the universe. He’s a guy who has accomplished extraordinary things. He’s kind of a Paul Allen — one of those guys. A scientific genius as well as an extraordinarily successful businessman. A rare combination. I don’t fit that mold. I’m a character actor and I’m trying to find my way through this process as an actor learning how to play this guy. We developed little bits and pieces of him so far and there will be more developed now. I can’t say that I actually relate to him, but I do understand him. When I play the dialogue, I do understand where he’s coming from. That’s a matter of an intellectual understanding of what he’s dealing with.
In the episode “Peter,” we see a younger Walter. We also see a Walternate — an alternate-universe Walter. Is there any suggestion of either a younger William Bell or an alternate William Bell in any of these episodes?
We will get some information in this episode about the William Bell on this side, the younger William Bell on this side. Yeah. There will be some information given.
What about the alternate William Bell — or maybe there isn’t an alternate William Bell?
Well, that’s what I’m talking about. The alternate William Bell. On the side that William Bell is on now, there was an alternate William Bell. We’ll find out what his story is in this episode.
Am I clear about that, or am I definitely trying to confuse you? What am I trying to do here? [Laughs] I’m not trying to confuse you. I’m doing the best that I can! Fringe is a very complicated show, which is one of the things that makes it so successful. It’s intriguing, constantly intriguing. There’s no question you can answer in any one definitive way that doesn’t lead to another question. [Laughs] That’s where we are. We’re having a great time.
Do you generally find things out script by script about your character or do you have a sense of where he’s going?
No, I’m not getting any other information about where we’re going with this or that. Well, yes, in this particular case, before the scripts were written, I did have a meeting with Jeff Pinkner, the showrunner and producer, who told me something of a sketchy outline about what would happen with William Bell in these two episodes. Then, there it is on the page.
Do you find it difficult to play, then? Not knowing exactly what to expect from the future?
Not knowing what to plan for the future? No, you’re right. You can only play what’s happening on the page this week. You can’t play where it’s going in the future because it’s so indeterminate. It’s so wildly, wildly possible in so many different directions that you really cannot tell where we’ll go from here. You are intrigued — I am intrigued with what’s happening here on these pages. I have no idea where it’s going next. I hope somebody else does! [Laughs] I don’t know!
Have you been watching the show pretty faithfully?
I follow as much as I can. I was not aware of the show — I shouldn’t say that, I wasn’t watching the show before all this started for me. When J.J. called me, I started working on kind of a steep learning curve, watching a bunch of episodes and getting an idea of what it’s all about. I was impressed. I was really impressed. I thought it was very surprising, the level of production quality.
I was also impressed with how hard these people work. The pilot episode that they shot in Boston, where you can see the steam coming out of their mouths because it was so freezing, freezing cold. I come from Boston, and I know how cold it is in Boston. I’m glad I wasn’t involved in that. [Laughs] I get outside on a location like that where it’s that kind of temperature and I can’t even say the lines. My mouth doesn’t even want to. These people work very hard, and I admire that.
[The publicist informs Nimoy that the pilot was actually shot in Toronto.]
Was it Toronto? I thought it was Boston. None of it was shot in Boston? [Pauses] Well, Toronto is cold, too! [Laughs]
How many days are you working on this final episode?
A total of three or four days this week and then I come back for another three or four days. Much more involvement than in the past, yeah.
How do you feel the character has evolved for you — your understanding of the character — since the first meeting with Olivia to this finale now? You’ve come a full season since then. Where do you feel your grasp of William Bell is at now?
Good question. Again, my grasp of where William Bell is at now is given to me by the dialogue on the pages in these two scripts. It’s the things that I say to people about myself as William Bell. It’s the things that I tell them about myself. And always, there seems to be this question about whether or not you believe what I’m telling people about myself. He says specifically to Olivia, “I know you have reason not to trust me.” I’ve said that to her before. “But you’re going to have to, so take your choice: either walk away from me and go your own way, or listen to me and try to take something from what I’m saying that’s useful to you.” I think that’s the fun of the character. We have to decide whether we want to trust him or not and see what evolves. These scripts give us a couple of twists and turns where we wonder if we haven’t been had by William Bell, which is great.
Are we going to learn what motivates William Bell?
Yeah, I think you’ll get more about what he’s after.
In the “Peter” episode, we’ve seen with Walter, it’s really about finding a cure for Peter. William is just this interesting scientist and he’s always off somewhere — Berlin or somewhere — and I’m curious about what drives him.
I think you’ll get more of that in these episodes. You’re right. There hasn’t been much of that. There have been sort of situational stuff rather than motivational, but I think you’ll get some more of that in these two episodes.
John Noble is an actor who you’re going to get to play a lot…
John Noble is a fearsome actor. What else do you want me to say? [Laughs] Seriously! He’s also a very tall guy. [Pauses] Okay, what?
Obviously fearsome — you’ve answered my question! What’s your interaction like? Has it been fun playing these meaty scenes with him?
I’ve only played one very brief scene with him [in "Grey Matters"] where he was totally under [my] control. He was on a gurney and I’m about to operate on his brain. [Laughs] We’ll have to stand toe-to-toe now.
Then how do you go about — obviously, Walter and William have this rich, deep back story. How do you go about developing that sort of history with the actor, with John?
Well, it’s given on the page. It’s on the page. We don’t make it up. It’s pretty clearly defined. Walter says his piece and I say mine. I say, “Hey, well just a minute,” and he says, “Hey, what about you?” We have that kind of cross-examination of each other. I think you’ll find it interesting.
I wanted to ask about the season one finale, which was very surprising and rather touching. The Twin Towers. What was your response when you got that script and that particular scene and the reveal?
I thought that was very interesting and, really, kind of daring, contemporary television to pull in that story, to pull in that event into this TV show. I thought it was really innovative and daring, frankly. I went, “Wow. Well, that’s… okay. This is some serious stuff.” It’s not easy to use that kind of stuff without seeming somehow exploitative, but I thought they did it very well.
The first part of the Fringe season finale, titled “Over There, Part 1 of 2,” airs tonight at 9:00 PM / 8:00 PM central only on Fox.